Issue No. 7 / Winter 2006 - 2007
Many readers will pick up William J. Mann's Kate: The Woman Who Was Katharine Hepburn (Henry Holt, $30.00) expecting to learn all about her bisexuality – and they will not be disappointed. But it would be very foolish to approach this volume with a prurient interest in only one issue in the actress' life, an obsession with sexuality, for here is what is undoubtedly a (if not the) definitive text on Katharine Hepburn. The first major work to be published after her death and beyond her obviously steely control, Kate penetrates the many myths that the actress herself created and unveils the talented, difficult and complex woman beneath. There is no question that William J. Mann admires and respects his subject no matter what he chooses to reveal – and that is perhaps why this is a book that cannot offend anyone but the most rigidly conformist of Katharine Hepburn's fans.
There are, of course, those who will (and have) asked why William J. Mann wrote and published his book now rather than wait until the Hepburn papers at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are cataloged and available. I don't think it really matters. Yes, those papers would have added something to the minutiae of Hepburn's career but I doubt they will reveal much if anything new about her personal life. And as Mann notes, when the papers become available he will make the appropriate changes and additions to future printings.
For more detailed assessments of this major biography, I refer readers to David Thomson in The New York Observer (October 16, 2006; I find much that is irritating about David Thomson but I have to agree with him that “it's a book that sets new standards in movie biography”), Janet Maslin in the New York Times (October 2, 2006), Thomas Mallon in the New York Times (October 6, 2006), Jocelyn McClurg in USA Today (October 5, 2006) and David Wiegand in the San Francisco Chronicle (October 5, 2006).
Richard Lamparski's Manhattan Diary: Twelve Never Before Revealed Stories about Tallulah Bankhead, Olivia De Havilland, Truman Capote, Fred Astaire, Christine Jorgensen, Dorothy Parker, Lenny Bruce, Ruby Keeler, Peggy Lee, Bette Davis, Gloria Swanson [and] Sharon Tate (BearManor Media, ) might be described as the “Whatever Became of….?”story after the creator of that series moved in 1960 to New York from Los Angeles. It is an incredibly open and raunchy tale, beginning with a 1964 report from the New York Daily News that the author had been arrested on a misdemeanor charge of possession of indecent pictures.
Indirectly that lead to Lamparski's new career, in that his attorney advised him to prove to a judge that he was a responsible, gainfully employed citizen – and the only way that the author knew how was to obtain a job as a publicist. (Lamparski doesn't actually deal with the question that many might raise as to the pairing of “responsible” and publicist.) Despite its title, the volume is not limited to the author's time in New York and there are stories relative to Hollywood. There are also stories of others aside from those listed in the subtitle. In fact, as far as I am concerned, some of the more interesting relate to lesser players, such as Dagmar Godowsky and Arthur Tracy (both of whom I also knew and both of whom Lamparski has brilliantly captured on the printed page).
Richard Lamparski does not always care for those with whom he comes into contact – for example Ilka Chase – but when he does like and admire someone, as with Gloria Swanson, he is incredibly affectionate and respectful. It is also remarkable the manner in which he will leap around in the middle of a story. Suddenly, he jumps from Swanson to Fred Astaire and Roy Rogers, and then back again to Swanson.
Manhattan Diary is a highly entertaining read, and, yes, most of the stories are new and revealing. In fact, just as Lamparski points out that his interview with Dorothy Parker has been used in book-length biographies of the writer, so will many of the anecdotes here appear in years to come in other biographies.
There's No Business Like Show Business...Was by Alan Young (BearManor Media, $14.95) is disappointing not because of the writing style or the anecdotes but because it is so short – a mere 108 pages with no index. As Shirley Jones is quoted on the back cover, the book “is full of sweet and funny anecdotes” on personalities as varied as Peter Lorre, Howard Hughes and Clifton Webb (who back in 1949 on the set of Mr. Belvedere Goes to College was very helpful to the young actor).
Chaplin's Limelight and the Music Hall Tradition, edited by Frank Scheide and Hooman Mehran (McFarland, $39.95) consists of twenty original pieces grouped together under four headings: “The Making of Limelight,” “The Limelight Interviews,” “The Music Hall Tradition,” and “Featured Articles and Reviews.” The last is actually unrelated to Limelight, but includes a Who's Who in the Chaplin Keystone and a first-rate essay on new DVD releases of Chaplin films. (I was impressed that despite the obvious support of the Chaplin estate in publication of this book, the author was willing to note imperfections and flaws.)
This is the second volume in a series that began with Chaplin: The Great Dictator and The Tramp. I have not seen this book and I wish the editors might have, at the least, provided information as to its publication. I assume it did not come out through McFarland, as that publisher makes no reference to it in its publicity for this new (and excellent) work
With Edgar Kennedy: Master of the Slow Burn (BearManor Media, $19.95), Bill Cassara has provided far more than I (and probably most people) would ever want to know about the comedian whose career lasted from 1911 through 1949 and included seventeen years of his own comedy series at RKO and inclusion in innumerable comedy compilations. Without question, this is the definitive work on Edgar Kennedy and the amount of research that the author has undertaken is formidable. I expected a good filmography and a good overview of Kennedy's film career, but I was surprised at just how much the author has uncovered of the comedian's private life. There are chapters devoted to all manner of topics, and a relatively short bibliography that does not come close to evidencing the vast amount of work that Bill Cassara must have undertaken.
Film buffs will love this work, but, sadly, it will not find much of a market beyond that small, enthusiastic group – and that is sad, not only for the author and the publisher, but also for anyone who believes (as I do) that research such as this should be encouraged.
Three more McFarland titles have been reissued in paperback. Jerry Vermilye's Ingmar Bergman: His Life and Films ($35.00) provides a straightforward record of the famed Swedish director's 46 productions, as well as a useful, if somewhat pedestrian, five chapter essay titled “Man and Artist.” For each film, the author provides the original and English-language title, complete credits, synopses, comments by the director, and critical quotes. The last are somewhat disappointing in that often they are lifted from books rather than popular periodicals and newspapers. When a quote is from the latter, the all-important date of publication is not provided.
Howard Pollack, who was responsible for a very fine biography of Aaron Copland, is the author of George Gershwin: His Life and Work (University of California Press, $39.95), an exhaustive and, in all probability, the definitive work on the popular American composer. Sensibly, the author divides the volume into two sections, the one documenting Gershwin’s life and the other his work. In the latter, chapters are devoted to specific productions or specific time periods. The most extensive coverage concerns Porgy and Bess, with separate chapters on its original production, its revivals and its reincarnations on disc, film and the concert stage. As a professor of music, author Howard Pollack demonstrates a thorough understanding of composition, but also he shows a brilliant talent for research and scholarship. The text never sinks to the level of lecturing the reader, and is, above all, entertaining and informative. At 909 pages, this is a hefty tome, but one that never fails to hold the reader’s interest, although there are times when one cannot help question our reasons to know or care. For example, do we really need to be told how many times George Gershwin has been featured on the Lawrence Welk Show?
To point out mistakes is nitpicking. And the only one of two that I noticed is the author’s misunderstanding of a film’s copyright date as being a film’s release date, as in his discussion of Delicious. I suppose that personally I should be a little more peeved at the second mistake, which is the author’s changing of my first name from Anthony to Andrew. Or perhaps I should just be pleased that I made it into the bibliography at all.
Finally, I cannot help but note how reasonably priced this book is – a mere $39.95. I cannot recall the last time I came across a volume of this length that cost so little, and I assume that credit should go (and I am happy to give it) to the sponsorship of the Roth Family Foundation Music in America. Whoever you are Roth Family Foundation, please continue your support of books such as these.
Arbuckle and Keaton: Their 14 Film Collaborations by James L. Neibaur (McFarland, $35.00) provides detailed documentation in narrative form on the fourteen Comique comedies produced between 1917 and 1919 by Joseph M. Schenck and starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton. Certainly, some of the information here is available elsewhere, but the author has obviously viewed the films, providing detailed synopses, and undertaken additional primary research. Aside from chapters on each of the comedies, the book also includes essays on the careers of Arbuckle and Keaton before and after the Comique shorts and a brief essay on featured players Al St. John and Alice Lake. There is an annotated bibliography and, pleasingly, James L. Neibaur will often meander away from his basic subject and offer fascinating tidbits on other aspects of film history.
I suppose I am somewhat unusual in that whenever I pick up a new book, the first sections that I turn to are the acknowledgements and the endnotes. A look at both in Marc Eliot’s Jimmy Stewart: A Biography (Harmony Books, $25.95) immediately reveals the book’s limitations. There is not one single library listed as a source in the acknowledgements, a damning omission, although the author does devote an inordinate amount of space to a tribute to Andrew Sarris (whose forte is very obviously not biography). The endnotes are incredibly slight, identifying few actual sources. For example, on page 74, we read that Jimmy Stewart lost his virginity to Ginger Rogers, an important event in any young man’s life. Yet, there is no source provided for such information, not even another book from which presumably this anecdote was taken. Aside from the endnotes, there are a considerable number of footnotes, and one cannot help but wonder why the two were not combined.
In the acknowledgements, the author is dismissive of the “conventional day-after reviews” from critics such as Dwight MacDonald, whom I would not include in this category. With such an attitude, it seems strange that reading the biography, one comes across a number of quoted comments from Bosley Crowther, who is definitely of the “conventional day-after reviews” type of critic. And I am sorry to keep harping on this subject, but I have great admiration for the critics of the New York Times and other newspapers who could turn out several reviews in a single day, something which today’s newspaper critics cannot accomplish.
There have been other books on James Stewart, including Allen Eyles’ James Stewart (1984), Roy Pickard’s Jimmy Stewart: A Life in Film (1993), Donald Dewey’s James Stewart: A Biography (1996), Lawrence J.Quirk’s James Stewart: Behind the Scenes of a Wonderful Life (1997), and Gary Fishgall’s Pieces of Time: The Life and Times of James Stewart (1997). I am afraid this is another volume to add to that ever-growing pile, and that James Stewart still awaits a definitive biography.
European Silent Films on Video: A Critical Guide by William B. Parrill (McFarland, $95.00) promises to provide the reader with credits, summaries, print evaluations and historical commentary on silent European films currently available on DVD, laser disc and/or VHS. The commentary is indeed both detailed and well written. The only criticism is that the book includes a fair number of non-European films, including The Cat and the Canary, Chang, From the Manger to the Cross, Grass, Moana, The Silent Enemy, and Sunrise, as well as at least one sound European film, Le Million, from 1931, and the US sound feature, Legong: Dance of the Virgins, from 1935. The author claims “in an effort at completeness” to have includes entries on two American-made Shakespeare adaptations, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1909) and Twelfth Night (1910), but I also found here D.W. Griffith’s The Taming of the Shrew (1908). I suppose one should not complain at being given more than promised, but I could not help but wonder if all the non-relevant productions had been removed would the book not have been shorter and thus much cheaper?
Aside from the A-Z listings, European Silent Films on Video also includes long (and most welcome) entries on the films of the Lumière Brothers, the films of Georges Méliès and the recently-discovered British Mitchell/Kenyon shorts.
One of the more worthless titles to come along in recent times is Cindy Pearlman’s You Gotta See This: More Than 100 of Hollywood’s Best Reveal and Discuss Their Favorite Films (A Plume Book, $15.00). The more than 100 of Hollywood’s Best includes such “legendary” figures as Cedric the Entertainer, Elisha Cuthbert, Fran Drescher, Naomi Fomer, Alyson Hannigan, Q’ [sic] Orianka Kilcher, Neil Maron, and Larenz Tate, as well as some better known names such as Johnny Depp, Nicole Kidman, Heath Ledger, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Each is given a paragraph or so to identify and explain their favorite film(s), and then the author provides a brief description of the latter as well as a very brief bio of the “celebrity.” With one or two exceptions, most of the choices are pretty awful – the AFI’s 100 Best List positively gleams in comparison – and it is not clear why anyone should care or how the author gathered together her quotes. There are no photographs of the participants in this survey and no scenes from any of the selected films, but the book does feature on its first page a photograph of the author, who is apparently a syndicated entertainment writer.
Like the other volumes in the “Contemporary Film Directors” series (see issue No. 5 of The Slide Area), Abel Ferrara by Nicole Benez, translated from the French by Adrian Martin (University of Illinois Press, $50.00/$19.95) is admirable. The text is detailed and readable, and includes an interview with Ferrara, a complete filmography and a good, solid bibliography. Whether Abel Ferrara, who is probabably best known to film buffs only for his direction of Bad Lieutenant, deserves such a book-length study is, of course, open to discussion.
The Hollywood Novel
This is an occasional column (yes, a column within a column) in which I will highlight a novel with a film-related theme and which was not featured in my 1995 volume on the subject (and which is long out-of-print).
Digging James Dean by Robert Eversz (Simon & Schuster, 2005) is the latest in a series of mystery novels featuring Los Angeles based paparazza Nina Zero. Here, she encounters a cult, the Church of the Divine Thespians, whose members steal the bones of dead Hollywood celebrities, believing such “relics” will make them stars. The bones that are stolen in the course of the story are those of, of course, James Dean and Rudolph Valentino. The storyline is entertaining, but the ending is somewhat confused and somewhat, at least as far as I was concerned, unsatisfactory. Robert Eversz has also authored Shooting Elvis, Killing Paparazzi and Burning Garbo in the same series; I have not read any of them, but, presumably, they also have film-related themes.
The latest in what the author Joe Keenan describes at one point as “the Cavanaugh Chronicles” is My Lucky Star (Little, Brown, 2006). The “stars” are two gay men, who once had a relationship, and a female companion, all of whom are would-be screenwriters, and who come to Hollywood and get involved with two aging and feuding sister-stars and the closeted gay megastar son of one of them. Joe Keenan is a writer of sitcoms and it shows as the novel reaches dizzy heights of silliness and at times takes on the elements of a French farce (or at least a French sitcom). To the author’s credit, just as it seems he has written himself and his characters into a corner from which there is no escape, there is a new and highly unlikely plot twist. The female companion is the only sane member of the trio, who generally gets her colleagues out of trouble, and, to her and the author’s credit, she does not act like a typical “fag hag.” There are occasional mentions of real Hollywood personalities, but none is given any lines. Other novels in the series, which again I have not read, are Blue Heaven and Putting on the Ritz.
Adam Berlin’s Belmondo Style (St. Martin’s Press, 2004) cannot really be justified as a Hollywood Novel, but I include it because of the quality and originality of the writing, and because the young New York hero’s father models himself after Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless: “My father’s favorite stories were movie stories. Movies were his one great love besides women and when I was a kid he’d tell me the most elaborate stories, which, I later found, were movie plots.”